October 9, 2018

The Many Definitions of Gentrification – And Why They Matter

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Gentrification: Framing Our Perceptions

No time to read? Watch this quick summary on my new paper:


Ever since sociologist Ruth Glass coined the phrase in the 1960s – to describe the turnover that occurs when upper-class “gentry” move into traditionally working-class neighborhoods – gentrification has been hot topic in urban scholarship, with dozens of researchers studying the extent and effect of this form of neighborhood change. Yet most of these analyses differ on a fundamental point; how exactly to identify and measure gentrification.

Rather than coalesce around a standard set of metrics, researchers routinely develop their own conditions for classifying places as gentrified. This lack of consensus leads to inconsistent conclusions about where and how this type of neighborhood change occurs and – perhaps even more important – the best strategies to ensure that change benefits residents equitably.

In a new report, Gentrification: Framing Our Perceptions, the Policy Development and Research team at Enterprise Community Partners examines the issues around defining and measuring gentrification. In a first-of-its-kind review, this paper summarizes several approaches used in recent studies of gentrification and details the complications these create for identifying where it occurs. It describes how different definitions can lead to different findings about the consequences of gentrification, and the implications of these inconsistencies for effective policymaking. The goal of this work is to bring more nuance to conversations around gentrification and discourage one-size-fits-all prescriptions for addressing its effects on low-income communities.

The options available to measure gentrification are wide-ranging, with different variables and criteria used in each study to designate places that have gentrified. For example, to identify low-income areas with the potential to gentrify, one study uses neighborhoods in the bottom quintile of the income distribution, while another includes any with an average income below the area median income. The result: the latter method provides potentially 2.5 times as many candidate neighborhoods for gentrification than the former.

Researchers also use different indicators of neighborhood change to identify gentrification.Some consider an increase in neighborhood median income sufficient, while others use more complex metrics based on resident demographics, housing costs or economic investment in the area. A few even use outcomes associated with gentrification – such as evidence of residential displacement or changes in the racial composition of neighborhoods – to pinpoint its occurrence.

Nor do these studies necessarily capture the actual process of neighborhood change. For one, they tend to treat gentrification as a binary condition, with a clear tipping point at which a neighborhood goes from low-income to gentrified. They also limit their analyses to a set of prescribed geographic areas and time frames, which may not reflect the actual contours of neighborhoods or the rates at which they change.

The net effect of this research is greater confusion, rather than clarification, about where gentrification occurs and its effects on low-income communities. Indeed, applying this one term to describe neighborhoods identified through different means has broadened its definition to the point of irrelevance, with everything from rising rents to the emergence of certain chain stores now viewed as sufficient evidence of gentrification.

Despite these limitations, current studies of gentrification are still worth examining. Unpacking the myriad ways to define gentrification is a first step to understanding the problems inherent in current approaches and to developing better ways of assessing – and responding to -- neighborhood changes.

There is also much that we still don’t know about gentrification that further research could provide, including:

  • Where and how often does gentrification occur? Some research suggests gentrification is widespread, while other studies contend it is concentrated in fewer than half of all low-income neighborhoods in a handful of metro areas.
  • How can we identify areas at risk of or in the process of gentrification? Most research is backward-looking and only designates places as gentrified after changes in housing costs, affordability, and displacement have taken root, making effective policy responses difficult to develop and implement.
  • What is the impact of gentrification on low-income residents? An influx of new residents and investment may be welcome changes to areas with a high share of vacant and dilapidated housing stock, while in other neighborhoods rapid turnover may lead to displacement, loss of community institutions and the social, cultural, and racial isolation of long-term residents.

Inconsistent definitions of gentrification also have important ramifications for housing policy, which relies on evidence about changing conditions to prescribe effective responses. Lumping different conceptions of how neighborhoods change under the banner of “gentrification” obscures the different causes and effects of housing stock turnover and residential displacement. Indeed, whether a neighborhood qualifies as “gentrified” does not change the experiences of residents facing rising housing costs and loss of community institutions.

The paper identifies three key implications based in the existing research. Public policies should:

  • Build in flexibility to respond to local conditions appropriately and effectively. Some communities may benefit from restrictions on new development to preserve historical or cultural landmarks, while others may need more housing to meet rising demand.
  • Encourage early action in housing and community development to stave off many of the challenges associated with gentrification. Developing and preserving affordable housing before an influx of higher-income residents can limit displacement due to rising costs, while smart zoning practices such as inclusionary policies can ensure sufficient supply in the future.
  • Promote affordability and opportunity in all communities, not just those experiencing gentrification. Most low-income neighborhoods do not experience rapid turnover but remain mired in poverty and disadvantage. Improving housing quality, access to education and community resources in these neighborhoods can both disperse demand across cities and ensure adequate alternatives for those displaced from gentrifying areas.

Finally, this report lays the framework for a forthcoming study that will apply different measures of gentrification to a nation-wide dataset of neighborhood conditions over time. It will be the first known national-level comparison of multiple definitions to show the extent of their overlap or divergence in designating areas as gentrified. Future research will also look at the intersection of policy decisions and gentrification. Be sure to check the Enterprise blog and our email newsletters for more details on this work to come.